The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animalby Henry Nicholls
Learn how the extraordinary impact of the pandafrom obscurity to fameis also the story of China’s transition from shy beginnings to center stage.Giant pandas have been causing a stir ever since their formal scientific discovery just over 140 years ago. Yet in spite of humankind’s evident obsession with the giant panda, it is only in the last
Learn how the extraordinary impact of the pandafrom obscurity to fameis also the story of China’s transition from shy beginnings to center stage.Giant pandas have been causing a stir ever since their formal scientific discovery just over 140 years ago. Yet in spite of humankind’s evident obsession with the giant panda, it is only in the last few decades that scientific research has begun to show us what this mysterious, frequently misunderstood creature is really like.Henry Nicholls uses the rich and curious history of the giant panda to do several things: to ponder our changing attitudes toward the natural world; to offer a compelling history of the conservation movement; and to chart the rise of modern China on its journey to become the self-sufficient, twenty-first-century superpower it is today.
Like his beloved cousin the teddy bear, the cuddly panda is also a mascot—an emissary of good will, an icon of the World Wildlife Fund and a symbol of China's national identity.
Science writer Nicholls (Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise, 2007) deconstructs the panda as a cultural icon and unravels the fascinating story of its real life—not as a bored, sometimes fractious presence in a zoo, but as a remarkably resourceful, elusive inhabitant of the forests of China. The giant panda first came to Western notice in the mid-1800s, and author relates exciting tales of those early encounters. For the next 100 years, naturalists argued about whether this huge animal with its distinctive markings was more closely related to the raccoon, whose markings were somewhat similar, or the bear. (Modern DNA testing has resolved the issue in favor of the bear.) The Chinese have used the panda as a brand for its state electronic factories, and the WWF puts it forward to rally support for endangered species. The gifts of young pandas of opposite sexes were a symbol of moves toward detente with the Soviets, even though the two pandas in question refused to cooperate and the efforts to breed them were abortive. More significant was China's 1978 agreement to partner with the WWF in a major research program to observe pandas in the wild, in order to protect its continued existence in its natural habitat and understand how to breed and manage them more humanely in captivity. Nicholls provides a deeper, more meaningful understanding of "real wild pandas" and why their continued existence matters, not for our amusement but so that we can come to understand their "undeniable mystery." He also writes that "[t]he conservation of wild pandas has also become a test of ourselves as a species."
A welcome addition to the panda bookshelf.
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Read an Excerpt
The Way of the Panda
The Curious History of China's Political Animal
By Henry Nicholls
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Henry Nicholls
All rights reserved.
A most excellent black-and-white bear
THE HUGE, FOREBODING OAK doors of the Dengchi Valley Cathedral are mostly locked. But once a week, on a Sunday, they are opened for the local inhabitants to attend a service in one of the oldest Catholic churches still standing in China's Sichuan Province. Occasionally, too, perhaps a few times a month, a peculiar kind of tourist will step off the beaten trail and head up the dusty valley to this Christian outpost. More than likely it is not God calling them but the giant panda.
For it's in this remote spot, in 1869, that a French priest and keen naturalist by the name of Armand David became the first Westerner to clap eyes on this extraordinary beast. His 'discovery' resulted in the formal scientific description of this animal and with it the panda bandwagon began to roll. Although the inhabitants of the Dengchi Valley and other rural communities had clearly encountered this species before David, they did so only infrequently. And beyond such communities, it would appear that the panda was simply not known at all.
This is a truly remarkable fact. How could it be that a species so instantly recognisable today could have been virtually unknown as recently as 1869? This is particularly surprising given that anatomically modern humans have been in China for tens of thousands of years, and we have ancient Chinese texts inscribed from almost 3,000 years ago, which tell of events still further back in time. Given the long history of humans in China, it's hard to imagine that no one ever bumped into a giant panda, particularly as (one assumes) there were once many more of them, so the chances of seeing one would have been that much greater. And if you were out in the forest and encountered this striking creature, you'd tell someone about it, right? Surely word about this animal would have found its way into one or other of the many historical texts. Surely someone would have dipped a pen into ink to scratch out a sketch of this alluring black-and-white beast. You'd have thought so.
Plenty of people have looked, setting out on literary or artistic expeditions in the hope of glimpsing a creature that resembles a giant panda. And there have been plenty of sightings, though big, brooding question marks hang over all of them. Part of the problem is that we inevitably come to these ancient texts burdened by what we now know about pandas. This makes it easy to rule out descriptions that don't match with the fluffy template panda that inhabits our minds, and impossible to be certain that any of these faunal fables do, in fact, refer to the panda. With that caveat firmly in place, let's take a look at the line-up of candidate pandas, ranking them in order of increasing plausibility.
In third and last place comes the pixiu. In the Er Ya, the oldest known Chinese dictionary thought to date from the third century BC, this animal is described as 'resembling either a tiger or a bear'. That might be a panda. Then again, it might not. According to Sima Qian's Book of History, written the following century, the pixiu was a ferocious animal that made it the perfect mascot to fire up warriors before a battle. Though it's hard to see the giant panda in such an overtly aggressive beast, it is just possible that a fanciful description of a panda by some over-imaginative hunter could have fed into the identity of this now mythical creature.
In second place, just ahead of the pixiu, is the mo. This crops up in the work of sixteenth-century natural history giant Li Shizhen, who described it as living off bamboo in Sichuan. It certainly sounds a lot like a panda, but Li and others frequently describe the mo as an aggressive animal, which does not. One explanation for this confusing blend of characteristics—some resembling pandas, others not—is that the descriptions of mo reflect not one but two different species—the giant panda and the Asian tapir. Though you'll not find these animals in the same forests today, with pandas confined to their elevated pockets of Chinese bamboo and tapirs tramping through rainforests from Myanmar down to Sumatra, their ranges once overlapped, with the tapir found as far north as the Yellow River until about 1,000 years ago. In her forthcoming book Panda Nation, historian Elena E. Songster suggests that it is possible that the tapir and the giant panda were mistaken for one another. 'Their coloring is strikingly similar and their size comparable,' she notes. The snag with this idea is that tapirs are no more aggressive than pandas. 'The tapir is famous for its docility,' says Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the United Kingdom's 5th Earl of Cranbrook and an expert on the Asian tapir. 'A bit of ferocity might have ensured them more space in a crowded world.'
The front-runner is the zhouyu. In the Book of Odes, a book of poems written some 1,000 years ago, the zhouyu was depicted as 'a giant animal that could be as large as a tiger, that had white fur but was black in certain areas. It was not carnivorous, and displayed a gentleness as well as a sense of trustworthiness.' That sounds like a panda, doesn't it?
If you buy into the idea that the pixiu, the mo, the zhouyu or any of the other vaguely panda-like creatures that inhabit ancient texts really are pandas, then they begin to pop up elsewhere with rewarding frequency: there might have been pandas amongst the rare animals kept at the Emperor's garden in Xi'an around 2,000 years ago; in the seventh century, an emperor of the Tang Dynasty may have rewarded a bunch of deserving subjects with a panda skin each; and his grandson sent a couple of live animals that could have been pandas to Japan as a goodwill gesture. And so on.
The problem with all these wonderful stories is that it's impossible to be certain that these ancient authors were really talking about pandas. If there is any truth in them and the Chinese have known about the giant panda for thousands of years, then why did nobody think of sketching or painting it, or glazing it onto any of the millions of fabulous Imperial vases? Because here's another strange fact: there is no known artistic rendition of the giant panda until the nineteenth century. What this suggests quite strongly is that the existence of these animals was not common knowledge until really very recently, even within China. As we will see in Chapter 3, explorers who subsequently marched into the mountains with the sole intent of seeing (and shooting) a panda found the mission far harder than they'd imagined. For historian Songster, this is pretty good evidence that this animal—so well known today—really was just the stuff of rumour until Armand David sent it global.
Even if you think you've never heard of this French priest, there's a very good chance that your garden owes a debt to him. Horticultural favourites like Buddleia davidii, Clematis armandii and Clematis davidiana were all collected by and named after him. The list goes on—Prunus davidiana, Lilium davidii and Viburnum davidii. Over the course of almost ten years in China, dozens of forays into the countryside around Beijing and three major expeditions, David fell upon 1,500 plant species previously unknown to science. Before him, these species were all confined to Asia, many endemic to remote areas of China. Today, if you don't have one of David's plant species in your garden, you wouldn't have to stray far from your front door to find one.
Though David had been something of an amateur naturalist for as long as he could remember, he had left his native town in the French Pyrenees in his mid-thirties on a mission of an altogether different kind. 'It was my ambition', he wrote, 'to share in accordance with my abilities the hard and meritorious day-by-day work of the missionaries who for the past three centuries have tried to convert the vast population of the Far East to Christian civilisation.' After years of badgering his superiors in the Catholic Church in Paris, David had finally been posted to China to spread the Christian word to a people considered ripe for conversion. From his arrival in 1862 until 1866, he'd been based at a mission in Beijing, although he'd been given the space to pursue his interest in natural history. As David put it, 'All science is dedicated to the study of God's works and glorifies the Author.' He read whatever texts he could get hold of, pootled out of the city on short collecting trips and sent his specimens back to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
On one of these expeditions in 1866, David's natural curiosity got the better of him. He had heard rumours of a weird creature to be found at the Imperial Hunting Park a few miles south of the capital. It was supposed to have the antlers of a stag, the neck of a camel, hooves of a cow and tail of a donkey. In spite of the high wall surrounding the park, an armed presence to keep out intruders and a risk of the death penalty for anyone who killed this rare creature, David managed to get his hands on the skin and bones of a female and a young male. The desk-bound zoologists back in Paris sat up at the arrival of this hitherto unknown beast. They were so impressed that they named it after him—Elaphurus davidianus or, more commonly, Père David's Deer.
Growing in confidence and with financial support from the Paris museum, David then set off to explore the mountains to the west of Beijing, a region 'which had not yet been visited by a European'. By his own admission, the results of his eight-monthtrip were 'not brilliant'. His third and last expedition, from 1872 to 1874, took him into central China, but his efforts were curtailed by illness.
So it was his second expedition from 1868 to 1870 that provided the greatest natural history treasures. He sailed from Tianjin across the Yellow Sea to Shanghai before heading 1,000 miles up the great Yangtze River into Sichuan Province in the wild and expansive west of China. At the Dengchi Valley Cathedral and its associated mission, built some thirty years earlier to plant the word of a Christian God in the midst of this rural community, David settled down to preach but also to collect thousands of plant and animal specimens for his Parisian natural history masters. While out collecting on 21 March 1869, not long after his arrival at the mission, David was invited into the home of a local hunter called Li for 'tea and sweets.' It was here that he chanced upon the striking, wiry skin of a strange new creature, 'a most excellent black-and-white bear'.
Back at the mission, David had just enough time before dinner to summon some of the hunters he'd taken on. He described the black-and-white bearskin he'd seen that afternoon and told them to add it to his wishlist. 'I am delighted when I hear my hunters say that I shall certainly obtain the animal within a short time,' he wrote in his diary later that evening. "They tell me they will go out tomorrow to kill this animal, which will provide an interesting novelty to science.' A few days later, David's hunters returned with a huge beast trussed up beneath two sturdy lengths of bamboo. It was not, however, the coveted black-and-white bear but a huge black boar. At a glance, David could tell from its short ears, long legs and coarse hair that it was different to the European wild boar of his childhood and after a bit of haggling, the naturalist had the specimen and the hunters had cash-in-hand. While they went off to make a fresh assault on the black-and-white bear, David and his servant set out on their own in the direction of a massive mountain above the mission. It was an expedition from which they very nearly did not return. The entry in David's diary for 17 March 1869 leaves just one unanswered question: what on earth had he been thinking?
The two men left the mission at dawn and made good progress until eleven o'clock. Then the path they had been following along the banks of a rugged stream petered out at the foot of 'a series of splashing, foaming cascades'. They munched on a 'crust of bread moistened with icy water', while David had a think. Should they turn back or attempt to find a way up the precipitous slopes on either side of the stream? You guessed it.
For four whole hours we pull ourselves up from rock to rock as high as we can go by clinging to trees and roots. All that is not vertical is covered with frozen snow ... Fortunately the trees and shrubs prevent us from seeing too clearly the depths over which we are suspended, sometimes holding only by our hands.
When they eventually decided to turn back, it had become impossible to descend without slipping and falling on the ice.
Sometimes we are plunged into half-melted snow, or the trees which we clutch, break and we roll to another tree or nearby rock. Fortunately my robust young man is seeing it through better than I might hope from a Chinese; twice, however, I hold him back when he is already slipping to the edge of the abyss. He says that if we do not die that day we never will.
Thankfully for David and for the purposes of this story, they didn't. His survival must also have come as a relief to his band of hired hunters who returned a few days later bearing the body of a young black-and-white bear. With David still breathing, they had an eager—almost desperate—buyer for the specimen and were able to sell it to him 'very dearly'. David carried the cold, stiff body into the room that the resident priest, Father Dugrité, had put at his disposal. He laid it gently on his work table, picked up his scalpel and quickly set to work.
During the nineteenth century, it was pretty standard for missionaries to dabble in natural history. In China at least, it was the Catholic missionaries like David that made the most significant discoveries. 'No Protestant missionary accomplished half as much as they did,' notes Fa-ti Fan in British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire and Cultural Encounter. The reason, she explains, is that Protestants being Protestants came to China with their wives and families, were most commonly based in coastal cities and tended to hang on to their Western lifestyles. The more mobile, celibate Catholics, by contrast, managed to set up a network of missions across China that would act as staging posts for journeys into the interior where the richest and weirdest flora and fauna were to be found. The Catholics also tended to embrace the local culture, dressing and living as did the locals and drawing heavily on their knowledge of the natural world.
Given this Catholic talent for natural history, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that the missionaries who contributed most to lifting the lid on China's natural history were European. Blazing the trail was Évariste Régis Huc, who came to China in 1839. In 1844, he joined forces with a former Tibetan Priest and Catholic convert, Joseph Gabet, and headed for Tibet. His Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846, published in 1850 and packed with derring-do, inspired a generation of missionaries—David included—to go out and do likewise. The Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris was more than happy to offer such educated and well-positioned missionary naturalists the funds to support their collecting work. On his way to Sichuan in 1868, David had popped his head in at a Catholic mission on the outskirts of Shanghai. This 'fine, large establishment' had a zoological collection established by fellow naturalist Pierre Heude, though when David came calling, the man himself had been out 'collecting the fish of the Yangtze'. 'I hope their researches will also augment our national collections at the Museum,' wrote David.
There was also Jean Marie Delavay, a botanist working out of Guangdong and Kunming and who David would meet in France in 1881. Delavay sent more than 200,000 herbarium specimens back to France. Yet another Catholic missionary, Father Paul Farges, was based in Sichuan from 1867 onwards. He described and gave his name to an entire genus of bamboo—Fargesia—one of the staple foods of the giant panda. Finally, there was the missionary Jean André Soulié, working a little later in the century, who sent the Parisian botanists thousands of specimens from Sichuan and Tibet.
But in case you have the idea that such men spent their spare time frolicking about with a flower press, nothing could have been further from the truth. 'In this country good results can be obtained only by surmounting great difficulty,' David wrote. What exactly did he mean?
Excerpted from The Way of the Panda by Henry Nicholls. Copyright © 2011 Henry Nicholls. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Meet the Author
Henry Nicholls writes regularly for Nature, New Scientist and BBC Focus as well as the science journals Endeavor and Galapagos News. His first book, Lonesome George, told the story of the last giant tortoise of Pinta in the Galapagos and was shortlisted for the 2007 Royal Society General Book Prize. Henry lives in London.
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